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Demanding demilitarisation

The streets of Jaffna saw historic scenes on Tuesday. The largest demonstration since the massacre on the beaches of Mullivaikal 6 years ago took place, with unanimous backing from Tamil political parties in the North-East, Tamil civil society groups and diaspora organisations. The protest, preceded by a series of demonstrations by Tamils in recent weeks, was a defiant marker of the Tamil people’s unwavering call for justice and the ongoing agony of not knowing where their missing loved ones are. Amid the moving scenes of Tamil mothers gripping photographs of their missing children and calling for their return, one demand was resoundingly clear and recurrent throughout - the Sri Lankan military must leave the Tamil areas.

Almost 6 years since the end of the armed conflict on the island, Sri Lanka’s heavy military presence continues to obstruct hopes of restoring normalcy in Tamil regions. That thousands marched opposing the ongoing militarisation, as soldiers remain stationed across the North-East, bears testament to the criticality of their demand for demilitarisation. Indeed, the organiser of Tuesday’s protest was questioned by the Jaffna police chief the previous night. The domineering presence of the Sinhala military, who are directly linked to the historic and ongoing disappearances in the North-East, continues to be a constant source of insecurity that envelopes the region, providing a climate of impunity with which the military and other human rights violators operate in. As highlighted by Britain’s deputy high commissioner to Sri Lanka, who visited the Vanni last week, military run businesses are also everywhere, undercutting local commerce and stifling free trade and private enterprise in fishing, farming, tourism and trade. The military’s grip on the economy in the North-East, ensures the Tamil people, whose economy has suffered greatly throughout the armed conflict is systematically dismantled and kept suppressed.

The newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena pledged that his government would be a break from the authoritarian past of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former ruler, under whom the size of the Sri Lankan military grew to the largest it has ever been. Championing the honour of the military, the new government pledged to withdraw 18,000 soldiers from labour jobs, that it said undermined them, and vowed to return them to their regiments. It remains unclear however, whether this withdrawal will take place in the North-East - where it is most desperately needed. Meanwhile, responding to concerted international condemnation of the military’s presence in the Tamil areas, the government has pledged to consider releasing 1000 acres of land in Palaly High Security Zone. Six years after the end of the armed conflict, the release of land - privately owned but occupied by the military - is an immediate necessity. Many landowners continue to live as IDPs as a result of military settlements. As the Northern Province’s chief minister, and former Supreme Court judge recently said however, Sri Lanka’s succession of government’s has a long history of broken promises. Thus whilst Tamils demand immediate change having waited six years already, it remains to be seen whether when, and indeed if, change will take place at all. Last month, seemingly following in the Rajapaksa regime’s footsteps, Mr Sirisena renewed the deployment of the military across the island and renewed powers allowing the military to maintain public order. Moreover, senior officials, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, have repeatedly assured the Sinhala people, and notably the Buddhist clergy, that troop numbers and security in the Tamil areas will not be reduced. These moves do little to inspire hope in the Tamil people.

The calls for demilitarisation come at a crucial time, when the UN Human Rights Council decided to give Sri Lanka six months to cooperate with the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), in order to gather more evidence. It is crucial to utilise this time to gain direct evidence from the North-East, with UN investigators being granted unrestricted access to all areas of the former conflict zone, in order to fulfil the international promise of producing a “stronger and more comprehensive report”.  The victims in the North-East have explicitly said this can be the only justification for a further delay in delivering justice. However, the militarisation of the Tamil areas remains a major obstacle. It is incomprehensible that witnesses and victims will feel safe to come forward and give testimony, so long as the very same troops alleged to have committed atrocities against them remain deployed on their streets. Tamils who speak to foreign officials continue to be watched and harassed by security forces. Moreover, Tamils who were arrested and detained by the former regime for attempting to gather evidence previously have not been released by the new government. Disturbingly, just this week, the new government extended the detention of the prominent human rights campaigner, Balendran Jeyakumari, who has been held under the anti-terror legislation since March 2014, despite calls from rights groups worldwide to release her.
 
Six years following the end of the armed conflict, the ongoing militarisation of the North-East cannot be justified. As the resolution passed this month by the Northern Provincial Council illustrates that the Tamil people view the military’s deployment, including its pervasive presence in their day to day social, cultural and economic life, and its occupation of their private lands, as part of the state’s wider scheme to dismantle, suppress, and ultimately destroy the Tamil identity. Calling on the international community to protect the Tamil people from the ongoing genocide by the Sri Lankan state, the NPC said the genocide was constructed through the military’s “permanent, occupying presence” in the Tamil homeland. As the island’s recent history demonstrates, international pressure on the state is key to driving progress for the Tamil people. The international community must ensure that its hope of engagement with the new government, delivers tangible results to the Tamils, including the removal of the military from the North-East. Tamils in the North-East are demanding it.